Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Memoir of a Fiji Islander Over the Seas

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    TTuesday, 17 November 2009

    FIJI, my island homeland, is not beckoning as it used to.

    Certainly, the islands are still pockets of paradise: golden sands fringed by swaying palm trees; turquoise water and reefs playing host to all manner of exotic fish; friendly, smiling people, et cetera.

    But away from the tourist enclaves, Fiji is not such a beguiling place.

    The roads are potholed, the buildings run down, many businesses have closed, robberies are rife and corruption endemic.

    Worst of all, 40 per cent of Fijians now live in poverty.

    This is a different place to the one I grew up in.

    Let me paint a picture. We rode bikes to school, about a 4km round trip, stopping to pluck ripe mangoes from trees or snap sugar cane from fields along the way.

    There was no television, but the picture theatre did a brisk business, showing westerns, B-grade movies and Bollywood hits.

    Weekends and holidays were spent swimming, sailing or fishing.

    Often the Fiji gang (a group of about 15 young friends) would be bundled onto the Beachcomber cruise boat and sent to the islands for the day, singing and dancing with the Fijian staff all the way out and back.

    We played cards, Monopoly and Mahjong. We visited the markets and bought sweet pineapples, paw paws and lady finger bananas, tapioca and dalo.

    This is, of course, the idyll seen through a child/teen's eyes.

    But most importantly, there was little crime - we rarely locked our house, even when we went on holiday - there was plenty of food for all and a job for those who wanted to work - not just in the tourist industry, but in the booming sugar, copra and mining industries, the hospitals and schools, and all the services that trade off a vibrant economy.

    But in 1970 Fiji gained its independence from Britain, a necessary and welcome move but one that has been fraught with difficulty.

    Since 1987 Fiji has endured four coups and a succession of mediocre leaders.

    The political ructions have led to it being suspended from the Commonwealth and aid and trade sanctions imposed.

    Although self-appointed prime minister Frank Bainimarama claims his mission is to fight corruption, it remains rampant.

    A Fiji businessman we know reports how deals are done with the government today.

    In order to get permission to extend infrastructure, he had to buy a new top-line Mercedes which he then sold to the relevant minister for a fraction of the price.

    Some argue this is a cultural issue, where gifts have long been bestowed on paramount chiefs.

    But the unpredictability and inefficiencies of such a system are taking their toll. And the people of Fiji are suffering.

    An economist at the South Pacific University, Wadan Narsey, claims the threat of poverty in Fiji is increasing as the cost of living soars and investor confidence declines further.

    He said the economy stagnated last year and is expected to decline another 1-2 per cent this year.

    But his warnings are not heard inside the country, where the media is censored and opposition silenced.

    My islands in the sun are cast over by long dark shadows

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